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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

The City of Words as Model

With the completion of his three-class system for the city of words, the outline of that model is pretty well complete. It is at this point that Adeimantus breaks into the conversation with the objection that in unifying the guardian group, Socrates has not made the guardian class happy (419e). Socrates will respond by saying that the aim is not to make any one group very happy, but to ensure the happiness of the whole (420b; also 421b).

Socrates’ assertion gives us a substantial hint as to how to find the essential definition of justice in the larger characters of the city of words. If this city is truly the best, or ideal, if it is “rightly founded”, it is good and will therefore contain the four traditionally highest virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.

Wisdom is to be found in the ruling group, and it will be seen  in that group’s proper conduct of public affairs. The rulers’ wisdom will be the knowledge of guardianship, that is knowledge of how to maintain good relations both within the city and with respect to outside powers.  Courage will be found not only in the rulers, but in the auxiliaries as well, thus in the guardian group as a whole. Their courage will consist in upholding and defending the law through their knowledge of what merits fear and what does not. (We have already been told that courage is a kind of knowledge – of what should be feared.)  The courage spread throughout the guardian class corresponds to the “spirited” part of the soul. This part (the Greek word for it is “thymos”) is for Plato higher than the appetitive part, because the spirited part can oppose mere bodily need. The spirited part is therefore allied to reason, which, he recognizes, would be helpless without it (inasmuch as reason is not or not like a physical force). Just as within the individual, the rational part of the soul needs the help of the spirited part to control or subdue the appetites, the city’s rulers need the strength of the auxiliaries to impose reason on the producers, if and when that should be necessary. Moderation is the control and limitation of the inferior desires by reason, and is spread throughout the whole city. It is therefore possessed as well by the producers. Moderation would be the specific excellence of the appetitive part of the soul. It is not clear whether the moderation of the appetitive part/producer class is merely a passive acceptance or some sort of conscious self-limitation.

Justice is what is left over once the other virtues and their relations have been identified. Justice would be the will to concentrate on what is one’s own special sphere of duty (434a) and the will not to meddle in affairs that exceed that sphere of duty. Justice is also recognized as the condition for the other three virtues existing.

Now this view of justice implies a number of things: first, it implies that justice is a kind of unification through specialization and hierarchy. It is important to note that this ideal of justice, which is often described as a harmony among the various parts of a whole, maintains very strictly that harmony is impossible in the absence of hierarchy. Justice would only exist when this hierarchy was accepted by all the parts, and any non-acceptance of hierarchy would constitute injustice.

Second, this view of justice also implies that the self is not by itself a unit or whole, but that it only exists as a part of a larger order. The individual in him/herself is not a whole, not independent or self-sufficient; only the city can claim independence and it must enforce that fact upon the individual by treating  him/her as a fraction or factor of itself. At the same time, if that is what the individual is, it means that the individual can only find full expression and happiness in fulfilling the duties and functions of the part he/she plays.

Third, one should also notice that the desires, especially the bodily appetites, are almost completely left out. They have only a passive accepting role to play within the whole. The relation here between reason and the appetites is one of subordination.

And fourth, it bears mention that justice here, has one and only one form and any deviation from it is injustice. Injustice will have a number of forms and always means an internal war or struggle among the various parts of the whole. Plato will devote most of books VIII and IX to the various forms of the city that are less than the ideal – timocracy [the rule of the noblest part, interest in honour]; oligarchy; democracy;  and tyranny – and these books, although not required, are well worth your reading.

At this point, you might notice that this definition of justice – which makes the best city a unity through the acceptance of  hierarchical specialization – has the same problem we saw earlier in the question of exclusive specialization when it came to merely economic tasks. Here the tasks are political and “constitutional”: it is being decided who makes the decisions for the whole and each of its parts. Even if you accept that there is inevitably a significant variation in natural talents across a population, it is not obvious that people should specialize exclusively in only one occupation, the one occupation where their greatest talent lies. Exclusive specialization among the parts of a whole might (and I stress might) lead to glory, fame and repute and to the highest possible efficiency. But you could do very well, perhaps nearly as well, more than adequately well, by allowing people to perform several or many functions. Here that would mean giving the function of ruling not only to one tiny group exclusively, but to many or to all. It is as though Socrates is not allowing you to have or develop more than one talent.

There is a gap here, a logical and perhaps moral gap between the “fact” of the uneven distribution of talents (a “fact” which is awfully difficult to determine with much degree of “objectivity”, especially given the importance of education which Plato recognizes) – a gap between uneven talents and the idea of a strict hierarchical organization of society. This gap is perhaps even more glaring when this glorification of  hierarchy  goes against the very idea of a Socratic/philosophic life, which is oriented not to seek glory, fame, pre-eminence or power.

Plato realizes that this gap is and will be both a theoretical problem and a political problem (when the question arises again as to how this model can be put into effect). And what he offers at this point in order to deal with that gap is the “Myth of the Metals”, one of the key and pivotal “myths” or stories employed in the Republic. The first myth you’ve encountered was the myth of Gyges – whose possession of a magical ring of invisibility gave him the power to act unjustly with impunity and which was used by Adeimantus to make vivid the question Socrates is still trying to answer: is it better to be a just man who appears unjust?

Now, the Myth of the Metals Plato recognizes to be a falsehood. He implies pretty clearly (at 414c) that the wisest, the rulers, will not accept it as true. Yet he calls it a “noble lie” or “noble fiction”. One indication of what he might mean by this came already at the end of Book II, where Socrates made a dsitinction between a “true lie” and a “verbal lie” or “useful untruth”. According to Socrates, a “true lie” would be ignorance about the reality in one’s soul and a “verbal lie” would be a persuasive device you can use for a good end, when the content of that “lie” cannot be proven or demonstrated.

The Myth of The Metals asserts the following: first, that the force of education is unreal; all individuals are born fully developed from the earth or nature. Second, because all have a common origin, all are brothers or kin, but third, each has in him/her a different mixture of more or less noble metals (gold, silver, bronze). Fourth, they must segregate themselves, divide themselves into different groups with different functions on the basis of who has more of what metal. Fifth, the gods dictate that they should strictly specialize on the basis of their natural constitutions.

At this point, two broad ways of interpreting Plato, and two distinct philosophical-political positions emerge:

If you are very conservative (look, e.g., at commentators like Bloom or Strauss) you would accept that such a hierarchy is in fact natural; that the fact that Plato doesn’t prove it does not mean it cannot be or has not since been proven. You would also accept that the “noble” lie is a valid and necessary justification of a hierarchy which is after all “natural”. You would accept that individuals basically are one metal or the other, but not some perhaps ambiguous hazy mixture of all three. And therefore you will think that strict specialization and hierarchy are given in the nature of things, that is simply the best way for human nature, no matter how much how many people might dislike it.

 If you are not conservative (in this older and historic sense of the term), whether you are some form of liberal, socialist, anarchist or something else, you can take the position that strict specialization does not follow from nature, that it is not given once and for all as the eternal pattern of justice, but that where it exists it is a convention or product of simply human contrivance, whether consciously decided upon or not. You might also see that the myth itself is, on Plato’s part, merely a legitimation of one of a number of possible social choices. It is used to legitimate a hierarchy, but not one which Plato accepts as necessarily natural. He therefore, although tacitly, leaves this question open as a political judgement.

If you take the conservative interpretation, then you accept hierarchy as natural: there is always a superior minority, and that superior minority ought to rule.

But, by the second large grouping of positions, this is not the only solution to the problem or matter of the distribution of talents. It is also possible, and right, that people should do what they are capable of doing, as opposed to what they are uniquely suited to or suited to doing better than others. You can accept this second position, and even see that Plato’s actual choice for hierarchical specialization is not totally devoid of reason, but the reason is not a strict correspondence with nature. It would instead be one political judgement among others, not logically necessary, and not even very compelling.

In this way, Plato’s inevitable elitism becomes somewhat shaky. And it is interesting that Plato himself is more honest and even straightforward about this than many of his conservative interpreters. He is more honest by himself exposing the necessity of hierarchical and exclusive specialization to be a myth – something less than perfectly demonstrable by logic.

We have still not found out how the “ideal” city can come into existence. All at the discussants are at this point skeptical that the myth of the metals will be easily accepted. But before we move on to these questions and to the education of the rulers (which is in many ways the heart of the book), it will be useful to take a close look at how Plato deals (or does not deal) with the question of justice as it applies to gender.

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